There are films that have a backstory, which is a lot more exciting than the film itself. The Fakir of Venice, directed by Anand Surapur, which was actually supposed to be Farhan Akhtar’s debut film as an actor, is one such!
The film has taken 14 long years from conception to reach the theatres. But there is more beguiling trivia in store- director Homi Adajania (of Being Cyrus, Cocktail and Finding Fanny fame) still hadn’t made a debut at the time. Apparently, he wrote the story (spun off a real-life story), sold it to the producers and went off to Peru for a vacay! Rajesh Devraj turned Adajania’s edgy story into a screenplay.
The film featuring Mumbai boy Adi Contractor (Farhan Akhtar) a production hand who is a bit of a hustler and Sattar (Anu Kapoor) a poor labourer who end up together on a con job is quite a clever commentary on India’s exotic spiritual sector that has a huge market in the west. Its miraculous draw is what the curator of a famous art biennale in Venice is relying on when they seek out a Fakir from India.
Adi, a production hand on films can never refuse an assignment, and so one day, he finds himself scouting for a Fakir as part of an Italian gallery’s idea for an art installation. What he settles for instead is Sattar, who as a child learned the skill of burying himself in the sand for lengthy stints at Mumbai’s Juhu Chowpatty to earn his keep. The trick seems to be one that befits a Fakir and soon the two turn themselves into the star attraction at Venice. So far so good, but then the plot points begin to feel labored.
Rajesh Devraj’s screenplay does not keep up with Adajania’s ambitious premise. What could have been a brilliant dark comedy ends up a pale shadow of its possibilities. The budgetary constraints show up and despite featuring two ancient and beautiful cities—Varanasi and Venice, The Fakir of Venice, with tacky post-production, scores poorly on aesthetics. Grainy shots end up making the film look drab and dull for the most part.
What lifts the film somewhat and makes it watchable is Farhan Akhtar’s performance as Adi Contractor. That he was a fine director (at the time this film began production) was established well enough with Dil Chahta Hai, but for his first film as an actor, it is quite evident that Akhtar is quite the natural actor. He slips into the role smoothly, segueing effortlessly from the tough-talking, pushy hustler to the easy-going, occasionally caring young man who wants to get away from his life in Mumbai. The actor with his ability to tread lightly and display impeccable timing makes the shallow Adi endearing. Indeed, if this film had been released at the time it was produced, Akhtar’s performance would have been lauded as much as his act in Rock On.
Annu Kapoor, as always is solid, bringing in the right amount of desperation and vulnerability.
Director Surapur, an ad film-maker otherwise, shows an ability to draw good performances from his actors, which is a big part of the job, but where he fails is in creating heightened drama. This inability continues to be the Achilles Heel of several accomplished ad filmmakers who while striving for slickness and realism, often fail to stoke emotions, so critical to the Indian film viewing experience.
An example of this is a scene in The Fakir of Venice where Sattar and Adi, standing astride a bridge in Venice, share their truth about why both agreed to this crazy gig on foreign shores. Adi’s quest is optimistic, he wants to help himself get a better life while Sattar, hopes to use his imminent death to help his sister Hamida. It’s quite a reveal and could have had a stronger resonance and yet because of the way it is treated, the moment slips away almost as if this was a casual chat about the weather.
Even Adi’s quaint encounters with an assortment of sadhus in Varanasi on a trip to find the right Fakir are gems that should have been utilized better to make for a punchier narrative. While Surapur’s filming style may be suitable for films that aim to qualify in the foreign film category, it has very little to offer an audience that veers largely towards Bollywood or even Hollywood style dramas. And the film, therefore, falls between the two proverbial stools even though it did have a leg to stand on.
Unfortunately, The Fakir of Venice like its chief attraction- Sattar the Fakir, draws attention to what it has in store but fails to live up to the expectations it sets up.
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